Yet the United States, unlike most developed countries, doesn’t have federally mandated paid sick leave for all. And the limited policy passed by Congress in March to deal with the pandemic expires at the end of next month. One study estimated that the measure, which effectively provides about 20 million workers with 10 days of paid sick time, prevented about 400 coronavirus cases per day per state over the six-week period examined. That’s about 600,000 cases over the time period, said Nicolas Ziebarth, an associate professor at Cornell University who co-authored the study.
The end of that pandemic provision couldn’t come at a worse time, as the number of COVID-19 cases is rising out of control in most of the country and is expected to increase even more after the holiday season.
Last week, HuffPost talked by phone with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a longtime advocate for paid sick leave, about the looming expiration, why paid sick leave is crucial and what needs to be done to deal with the onslaught of coronavirus cases.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So, we’re at a crisis point.
Unless Congress acts, it is just really going to be a disaster. We are in the middle of a surge right now. Every indication is, if people don’t take all the right steps [during] the holidays, it is going to [get] even worse.
Right when we’re seeing the largest increase in numbers, months before we are going to be able to have a vaccine available, people are going to be sick and have no way to take time off or to take care of themselves or to do what they need to do to stop the spread.
I know there are giant loopholes in the sick leave policy that passed in the spring. [Companies with more than 500 workers are exempt.] How effective do you think it’s been?
Somewhat. Obviously, the House-passed HEROES Act is much more effective. It extends the deadline and expands the number of people who can use it. It covers a lot more people.
But that’s not going to get passed [in the Senate] before Dec. 31. My colleague spoke to Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who said there would be something passed, possibly in the omnibus, to extend the policy. Other senators were less hopeful.
So before the end of this year, we have to pass what’s called an omnibus bill, which extends spending. If we don’t, the government shuts down. It is the one opportunity we have to add some provisions for extensions for [paid sick leave] and other provisions that expire at the end of the year. That’s what I’m pushing to do.
How’s that going?
Well, right now, [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is not conceding that he’s willing to do anything.
And what would it look like, if you got this put in? Would it just extend the current policy?
They could do a straight extension. That’s better than nothing. Or they can do the expanded language. We’re working as hard as we can to try and get the Republicans in the Senate to try to agree to that.
Where is paid sick leave on your list of priorities? Certain unemployment benefits are about to run out, too.
This is one of our priorities so people can at least take care of themselves and their family. It’s not only important for them, it’s important for stopping the spread. If you do not have paid sick leave, if you cannot take work off, you go to work when you’re sick.
And we haven’t learned the lesson yet. One of the things we know people need to do is to isolate themselves if they’re exposed. That’s how you stop the spread.
But if you do not have any paid sick leave, you’re going to go to work. You need to put food on the table. You need to pay your rent. People go, “I’m going to be OK, I just have to go to work.”
You’re hearing from people worried about this?
Senators, you guys, have sick leave?
Well, technically, senators are required to be there for votes. But certainly, yes, if a senator has COVID, if they’re positive or have been exposed, they stay home for two weeks.
And do they still get paid?
Everyone should be able to do that, right?
Everyone should be able to do that. Everyone has to be able to do that. It’s not only the right thing to do for the health of people, it’s the right thing to do for the economic health of our country.
Long term, would you like to see something permanent passed?
I have long been an advocate of that. If people do not have paid sick leave and they have the regular flu ― or they have something else that is highly contagious ― and they go to work, they expose everybody.
A woman I met a number of years ago, who worked at a deli in a grocery store, said to me, “I’m sick. I’m at work. I have no choice. I gotta pay the rent. Do you want to come get a sandwich from me?”
What did you say?
I said no. We all want her home, right?
Definitely, I don’t want that sandwich either. Did you see that story about the Iowa pork plant where managers were betting to see how many workers got sick? [Managers allegedly allowed some workers to stay on the line even when they exhibited COVID-19 symptoms. At least five died of the virus.]
It’s just absolutely appalling. The lack of care about human life from some people is unbelievable.
We’re all waiting to see what Congress does now with regards to care for human life.
Yeah, and we just have a few weeks left and a lot of work to do. And what Mitch McConnell is doing in the Senate right now is just passing judges.
What are the other priorities?
Local and state support right now is critical. The unemployment extension. The Federal Reserve emergency lending program. Evictions. Foreclosure. Student loan payments. There’s a whole list. If we don’t extend, people are going to get smacked in January right when we are going to see the largest numbers.
The vaccine’s coming though. So won’t we be OK?
Yeah, so let’s talk about that. I am excited that there’s a vaccine. There is hope in the future.
We are told if everything goes well, and that’s an “if,” maybe by the end of this year we’ll have some vaccines available. But to have large-scale vaccines manufactured and distributed with everybody getting it is going to be a huge, gigantic effort.
Any thoughts on schools right now? Seems like a mess.
We have not taken the efforts at the federal level to make sure our kids can learn during a pandemic. Just even providing support for personal protective equipment, for smaller class sizes, for making sure there is the capability for all kids to be able to learn equitably ― it has not been done.
What are the chances of any of this happening?
It’s completely dependent on whether the Republican [Senate] majority leader is willing to bring it up. So far he’s said no, we’re not doing anything. Everybody is pushing for this that has any kind of understanding of what people are going through today.
It seems like the GOP thinks the economy is recovering.
Many of them [in the GOP] don’t want anybody to believe this is real, so if you do something to help support people now, you’re going against your own message that this isn’t real.
That makes sense.
It doesn’t make sense.
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.